Agatha, Pera Palace Hotel
Last spring, Yigal Schleifer (who has contributed to The Times Travel section) and Ansel Mullins, American expats who created the blog Istanbul Eats, fielded an online question from a diner: “Can you please help my clueless boyfriend (along with millions of Turkish men) find a nice and romantic place to propose?” They cagily did not reveal the place that Mr. Mullins himself chose when he popped the question to his wife a decade ago: Pera Palace, the grand Ottoman Victorian hotel where Agatha Christie is said to have written “Murder on the Orient Express.” Back then, Pera Palace was picturesquely rundown. But last year, it emerged from a meticulous restoration with the elegant addition of a downstairs restaurant called Agatha, which exudes belle époque glamour. As you descend a white marble staircase to the chandeliered dining room, you see, in a glass window case, shining pieces of 1892 Christofle silver, and in another case, a New Year’s Eve menu from 1924, offering “frivolités madrilènes.”
In 2011, Agatha may well offer Istanbul’s most stately gourmet experience. Each month, the German-born executive chef, Maximilian Thomae, devises a tasting menu inspired by a Turkish staple. One recent theme was olive oils, drawn from 60 orchards; a different variety flavored each dish. His vegetable mosaic terrine resembled a French knot garden, bordered in chard, paved with sumac-spiced rice and pebbled with carrot and zucchini. The citrusy oil he chose — Laleli Taylieli Extra Virgin — united the whole. He steeped his house-cured salmon in jasmine tea, and his velvety, tangy vine-leaves soup was balanced by crab dumplings — fluffy round soufflés the size of cherries, which arrived on their own side dish to be admired before being tumbled into their flavorful bath. He tenderized the quail kebab in milk and encased it in a beguiling peach pestil. As I marveled at these harmonies of texture and taste, I hunted for the Turkish clues lurking in each dish. Even the sorbet, silky smooth, made of limes and olive oil, was redolent of Turkey’s hillsides.
Agatha, Pera Palace Hotel, Mesrutiyet Caddesi 52, Tepebasi, Beyoglu; (90-212) 377-4000; link. Chef’s Degustation Menu (recommended), 125 lira per person without wine.